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14 Feb, 2010

All Fanatic Fundamentalists are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others

Originally Published: 14 Feb 2010

The booming and bustling city of Mumbai, seeking to become the Shanghai of India, has in the past week witnessed some amazing fundamentalist agitation.

Mention the word “fundamentalist”, and the image of a bearded, turbaned, scimitar-swinging, suicide-bomber Muslim comes to mind. Yes, a Muslim is involved, but not quite of the fundamentalist variety.

Shah Rukh Khan, one of India’s and arguably the world’s most popular movie stars, has just made a film called “My Name is Khan” which was due for release across India on February 12.

A few days ago, he made a public comment expressing dismay about Pakistani cricketers not being selected to play in the upcoming Indian Premier League tournament. It was an honest remark implying that the highly-watched tournament would have been more exciting if Pakistani players were included.

This remark was seized upon by a Mumbai-based political party called Shiv Sena (the Army of Shiva, a Hindu deity) and castigated as an indication of Mr Khan’s pro-Pakistani views.

In the mayhem that followed – which included calls for Mr Khan to leave India and move to Pakistan – the followers of Shiv Sena expanded their agitation to target Mr Khan’s upcoming movie.

On February 12, the police had to be called out to protect the movie theatres. The issue grabbed hours of air-time and millions of column-inches worth of newspaper space. Politicians, movie-stars, business leaders and others all added fuel to this Raging Inferno.

Yes, this is all happening in India, an emerging economic power, the world’s largest democracy, home to ancient civilisations, health and wellness traditions like Yoga and Ayurveda, glorious monuments like the Taj Mahal and birthplace of some of the most powerful I.T. minds on the planet.

So what’s my point? There are several.

Point One is that all fundamentalists are equal but some fundamentalists are more equal than others.

A few months ago, this same party had thundered against non-Maharashtrians coming to work in the state of Maharashtra and depriving the locals of jobs. This ruckus swept up Sachin Tendulkar, the world’s top cricket batsman, and himself a Maharashtrian, who issued a statement saying that India was for Indians who should be free to work wherever they want, regardless of where they were born.

A few weeks ago, another controversy erupted when Shiv Sena issued a fatwa to the effect that all taxi-drivers in Mumbai should speak Marathi, the local vernacular. This was a peculiar call, especially as many Indian Parliamentarians, especially from South India, cannot even speak the national language, Hindi, and instead make themselves understood in English.

Point Two proven by this latest ruckus is that Muslim fundamentalists get more global publicity than non-Muslim fundamentalists.

While the issue was raging across India, it got scant coverage in the major international news media and networks, which preferred to keep Haiti and the latest whipping boy, Iran, in the headlines.

Now, if it was a bunch of Muslim mullahs raging against a book (like they did in the case of Salman Rushdie) or an anti-Islamic movie, I guarantee it would have been all over the global media.

Everyone knows about Mr Rushdie and the hoop-la created by some Muslim groups following the publication of the Danish cartoons caricaturing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

But not many know that one of India’s most famous painters, M.F.Hussain, a Muslim, was threatened with violence and hounded out of India for art-works that were considered offensive by Hindu fundamentalists, including the Shiv Sena. Mr Hussain now lives in self-exile in the Gulf.

Point Three is that in India, the tag “terrorists” appears to be reserved exclusively for Muslims.

Let me cite a news item dated February 7, 2010, headlined “Maoists kill railway official, blow up train track” and put out by the Indo-Asian News Service. It said: “Maoists attacks was carried out late night on Saturday, and paralysed rail traffic on the Howrah-Delhi route.”

It added: “About 40 Maoist guerrillas blew up the up and down tracks late on Saturday night between Rajla and Narganjo railway halts near Kahba bridge, affecting the movement of several long-distance and local trains,” Additional Director General of Police (Headquarters) U S Dutt told PTI in Patna.”

Not once in the entire report were the Maoists called “terrorists.” Other media refer to them as “separatists,” “militants,” or even, to quote the police official above, “guerrillas.” But never terrorists.

If Muslim “guerrillas” were blowing up rail-tracks, you can be sure a) they would have been called terrorists; and b) the New York Times, CNN, BBC, etc, would give the attacks blanket coverage.

My final point: this is going to get worse before it gets better.

I have a great many enlightened, educated Hindu friends who know well that Hindu fundamentalists are no different from Muslim fundamentalists. These friends want India to rise above these petty, parochial politics and link up with both the Islamic-majority neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh to create a formidable bloc that would be a global force to reckon with.

But such a bloc would threaten other dominant blocs. And the reality is that the overwhelming majority of Indians are not so enlightened. Since the 26/11/2008 attacks in Mumbai, the Indian public has been whipped up into an anti-Pakistan (read, anti-Muslim) frenzy that is identical to the anti-Muslim frenzy that erupted in the United States after the 9/11 attacks.

This is likely to continue. Right-wing, neocon hardliners in the U.S. and Israel are infiltrating India’s political, military, diplomatic, business, economic, media, cultural and educational systems as part of their new “strategic alliance”, using the same “shared-values” tactics that have worked well in the U.S. and elsewhere.

To get a rising power like India on side is a critical component of the war on Islam. Many of the virulently anti-Muslim fundamentalist political parties, such as those which run Gujarat state, are funded by the rich Indian diaspora abroad, similar to the Tamil diaspora which funded the erstwhile Sri Lankan “Tigers”. These parties see the U.S. right-wing neocons as their “natural allies.”

In his movie, the hapless Mr Shah Rukh Khan seeks to emphasise the theme that castigating Muslims with sweeping generalisations like “terrorists” affects innocent people, is a gross violation of human rights and does nothing to build a strong, secular and united India.

Millions of “moderate” Hindus agree. But like all “moderates” everywhere, they are up against their own home-grown fundamentalists.

This is the real “clash of civilisations” – not one religion against another, but the “moderates” vs the “fundamentalists” within each religion itself.

If India cannot put a stop to it, no-one can.